Long before the arrival of LinkedIn, when recruitment via virtual means became a reality, Vanessa Denza, who has died aged 84, was associated with placing UK fashion talent into prime positions in the global fashion industry. Operating from an office in central London, with 30 filing cabinets and a word-of-mouth policy, Denza choreographed the careers of countless graduates, securing jobs from designers to buyers, merchandisers to creative directors.
She founded her company, Denza International, in 1988, and with Vanessa at the helm it quickly gained a reputation for not only understanding the specific needs of clients and candidates but also liaising with established fashion names, including the textile designer Celia Birtwell and international firms such as Calvin Klein, Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent.
Denza had played a leading role in fashion since the early 1960s when as a young buyer she promoted the work of up-and-coming designers.
Following a placement in the Paris headquarters of Jacques Fath, then a Paris couturier on a par with Dior and Chanel, and stints in Italy and New York, Denza had returned to London at the beginning of the swinging 60s.
There she puts the retail executive Martin Moss (husband of the photographer Jane Bown), who was transforming the staid Knightsbridge department store Woollands into a showcase for fashion talent. The new Woollands was aimed at the younger customer, and sought to nurture new designers and introduce a swathe of bright colors and fresh proportions.
Moss made Denza – then aged 22 – the buyer for his 21 Shop, a boutique on the ground floor aimed at the emerging youth market, with an interior designed by Terence Conran. Denza worked with the Royal College of Art to discover and promote new talent for the shop, helping to launch the careers of Ossie Clark, Foale & Tuffin, Alice Pollock and Bill Gibb. She also bought new classics by Jean Muir, abbreviated pieces by Mary Quant, and patterned separates by Emilio Pucci.
“Sally Tuffin and Marion Foale’s first trouser suit was made in needlecord,” recalled Denza in an interview with the V&A in 2006. “In 1961 you didn’t wear trousers. That’s when I started buying in a lot of trousers from France. I used to go over to the factories. They needed computers but they didn’t have them; their stock was in such a mess. I’d hand pick myself two or three thousand pairs.”
The success of the Woollands 21 Shop was phenomenal – achieving the first year’s financial target in the first three months. “The management of the business could not keep up,” Denza wrote.
Denza left Woollands in 1964 and later became a fashion co-ordinator for Wallis. In 1966 she established her own boutique with her business partner, Madeleine Frye, called Vanessa Frye, with shops in London and Cheltenham. From 1971 she focused on consulting and buying, ultimately founding Denza International.
By the late 80s Denza had not only extensive fashion industry knowledge, but a unique insight into academia. She had been involved with the Royal College of Art since 1962, when Janey Ironside was professor of fashion. Spotting a gap in the market, Denza had developed a series of lectures called the Business of Fashion.
She became an external examiner and adviser to undergraduate fashion courses including at Central Saint Martins, the universities of Northumbria, Nottingham Trent, Manchester and Westminster, and Ravensbourne College of Art.
In 1989, along with the designer Jeff Banks and the show producer John Walford, Denza created Graduate Fashion Week. The organization now known as Graduate Fashion Foundation was formed to give BA fashion courses a centralized platform to show collections to the industry at large. “Our initial attainment of charitable status is due to Vanessa’s efforts,” said Douglas MacLennan, chairman of the organization. “I always associated Vanessa with a quick wit, forthright in her opinions, while being very sensitive to what was happening in the world of fashion.”
She was born in Marylebone, London, to Joyce (nee Withers), who died when Vanessa was 16, and Luigi Denza, a stockjobber of French/Italian heritage who served as the mayor of Hampstead. She had two brothers, one older, one younger, and went to a boarding school, Convent of Our Lady, in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. There she learned skills that were to provide the entry into a career in fashion: speaking French fluently and basic principles of how to sew.
She moved to London, frequenting jazz clubs and staying true to her ambition to avoid being a secretary. On the strength of her French, she secured her first position as a trainee buyer with Fath in Paris, then had placements with Pucci in Capri, and Lord & Taylor in New York, before taking the job at Woollands.
Her instinctive, hands-on approach to fashion recruitment was recognized by candidates and corporations. “She had great energy and a twinkle in her eye,” observed Berndt Hauptkorn, European president of Chanel. “She understood what would excite me as a client and how the candidate would fit in. There was an immediate trust because there was a warmth. Above all, there was this understanding of the creative soul.” Emma Davidson, now managing director of Denza International, recalled that “She was super-passionate. There was no ‘Oh darling, you are fabulous.’ She didn’t have time for that kind of behavior.”
Denza was made MBE in 2004 and began a phased retirement from 2015.
She married Martin Tomlinson in 1974; he died in 2012. She is survived by their children, Louisa and Ben, and by her stepson, Sam.